A Democratic Decision to Fell Trees on Midsummer Common


Thursday, April 2nd, 2009. 2:33am

Lime Tree to be Felled on Midsummer Common

I attended Cambridge City Council’s planning committee on Wednesday the 1st of April 2009 where councillors considered the proposed felling of trees on Midsummer Common. The decision to fell was originally taken by officers, however following an objection I made, it was referred to Executive Councillor Julie Smith who in turn decided to seek the advice of the planning committee.

I spoke to say:

I think this process is how decisions to fell substantial established trees ought to be made. We have councillors making decisions in light of detailed expert opinion from the council’s tree officers. Without an objection these fellings would have been carried out without a decision being made by elected representatives or the full reasoning being made available.

[Cllr Blair vigorously shook her head at this point. I have no idea why as what I was saying was entirely accurate. My best guess is that she considers ward councillors being consulted and not objecting, as amounting to a democratic decision being made by councillors.]

This process of the executive councillor making a decision on the basis of advice from the planning committee isn’t well publicised. I noted that other comments which the council’s tree officer reported had been received when presenting their proposals at a recent Friends of Midsummer Common meeting were omitted. The council’s proposals to fell trees are also not generally well publicised in advance, my suggestion to make the council’s plans available by putting the tree database online were summarily dismissed by the report; there is no evidence that it had been properly considered.

[Cllr Baker the chair of the planning meeting asked me to focus on commenting on the proposals. ]

l question the need to fell the London Plane tree on the riverside near the Cutter Ferry bridge. If the problematic branches were removed surely this would leave that tree in essentially the same state of its neighboring tree. That neighbouring tree is of the same age and species and suffers from the same “genetic flaws” which are being used as justification for the felling of this tree yet it is not proposed to fell that tree. .

Are councillors in possession of the full facts with respect to the other trees under consideration? What are the full details on the tree which was allegedly damaged by the EDF electricity works, has that damage actually had an effect?

There is no indication of the urgency of the works.

Finally where is the balance between risk and the value of these trees. What does the council’s apparent zero tolerance to risk policy really mean? The report suggests that once a junior officer has expressed the slightest concern about a tree then it has to go. I think that councillors ought be involved in making that decision, that balanced judgement.

The Lime by the Cutter Ferry Bridge

The tree pictured above, a Lime, is one of those which is scheduled to go. Officers presented an ultrasound scan which they said showed decay (white rot) through the base of tree which has weakened it and will result in it toppling over. I was told afterwards that the council have spent £12K of public money on this machine. If the lime is felled it will be interesting to look at the stump and see if it has been accurate or if it can be tuned to present an argument in support of any point of view. Photographs of a small amount of fungus on the outside of the tree were shown as further evidence of rot inside. To me this tree appears solid. Despite the evidence I have heard I would be happy to sleep under it on a windy night. I have continued to walk and cycle under it on a number of occasions since it was condemned including when it was very windy. I’ve been to visit the tree since the meeting and it appears rock solid to me. Perhaps there is fungus there and over time it might get the better of the tree and there will be a need to fell it before it topples. Officers didn’t explain how urgent they thought this felling was and councillors didn’t really interrogate them. Overall I was quite perturbed by how willingly and unquestioningly the councillors accepted the expert advice

The Riverside London Plane

This is the tree which I had formally objected to the felling of. I accepted the need to remove a couple of branches, but felt this would be sufficient to reduce any risk. The photograph below shows the pair of 1970s London Plane trees, the one on the left is to be felled whereas the one on the right is judged sound.

The Plane Tree to be felled alongside the one to be saved

Inside the London Plane - showing the bark cracking
The close-up photo shows bark cracking near a point where a branch emerges. Photographs distributed at the meeting by council tree officers placed an alarming looking white dotted line down this gap in the bark suggesting it was a likely break point. The officers did not draw attention to the low branch overhanging the path, which is clearly the one that risks damaging people and maybe a residential boat if it were to fall. Cllr Sian Reid asked officers to respond to my suggestion that the removal of the problematic branches would be sufficient. Tree officer Kenny McGreagor replied that once he had removed the branches the others would be more exposed to the wind and therefore more likley to break themselves. He held up a picture of the tree and using his finger traced round a huge section of the crown of the tree which he said would be removed by getting rid of the suspect branches.

Before the item was taken, in an informal discussion with Cllr Smart Cllr Julie Smith said that she had been to see the London Plane and commented that it “looks alright”.

Friends of Midsummer Common

Mr Baxter, the chair of the Friends of Midsummer Common spoke at the committee. He said his front door opened onto the common and in his dreams he considered it to be his front garden. He broadly supported the council’s plans. He reported that trees on the common were generally in poor health, and pointed to a conservation plan from 2001 which had identified trees which were in a poor state then, he said many of those commented on had already been felled by the council in previous years. Mr Baxter said that there were mixed views among his membership about some of the proposed felling, but overall he felt the feeling was support for the council’s proposals. The Friends’ position was summarised as being aware that the condition of the trees on the common was generally poor and wanting that to improve.

Mr Baxter noted the fact one of the Horse Chestnuts alongside Victoria Avenue had been blown over just under two years ago.

Speaking about the Purple leafed Norway Maple supposedly damaged by EDF electricity Mr Baxter raised questions about the damage, but said that the new tree next to it was doing well and would benefit from the removal of the old one. He complemented Mr McGreagor for the quality of his presentation to the Friends of Midsummer Common (As I have done, it was a brilliant presentation) and said that he had won lots of people round to the council’s plans.

The Debate

Cllr Reid said: “I find the report convincing. I really like the clear illustrations which have come forward today, they will really help us defend our decision later”.

I agree, the report was excellent, the arguments were clear. I think its a great success of the process that councillors have made the decision, and are able to defend it. This is a great step forward from the position on the 8th of January 2009 where the executive councillor responsible for the tree felling admitted to the West Central Area Committee that she was not aware of the council’s plans to fell these trees.

Cllr Dixon complained about the fact the planning committee wasn’t making the final decision, merely making a recommendation to the executive councillor. Cllr Baker, chairing the meeting, stopped him from discussing this point. On the 12th of March Cllrs Blair and Smith rejected my suggestion that the process for decision making relating to tree works on green spaces which is currently being developed ought be brought to a council meeting for discussion so quite where Cllr Dixon was supposed to make his point I do not know. Interestingly after the meeting the council’s principal tree officer said that she now was planning to take the new process to an upcoming council committee, I hope Cllrs Blair and Smith will reconsider and allow it to be discussed. They should also invite Cllr Dixon.

Cllr Dixon said: “The council’s role is to protect trees”, however he went on to say that he concurred with the tree officers’ report and recommendations to fell those trees under discussion.

Cllr Hipkin said that the biggest impression on him had been made by Mr Baxter’s comment about the Horse Chestnut which had fallen across Victoria Avenue. He said that the council had to be able to cut down trees which were in a poor state. He felt that the council had a good policy on trees, and there were complaints when they felled trees as well as complaints about the council being too “namby-pampy” about trees when it puts tree protection orders on them.

Cllr Blencowe focused on two trees, the Lime by Cutter Ferry Bridge and the London Plane. He noted that the health of trees had been commented on previously, but they had not fallen between then and now. He said the Lime “looked a pretty fine specimen to me” though he accepted he had no particular expertise and that was his judgement as a lay-man. His overall assessment was that he “didn’t see a substantial risk” with respect to these two trees and questioned: “should we be felling them?”.

In response to Cllr Blencowe’s comments the tree officer said that he had the benefit of every survey that had been carried out over time on the trees, and that the condition had changed over time. He talked Cllr Blencowe through the ultrasound scan which had been produced of the Lime tree (what we weren’t told is at what level the cross-section shown represented, or how it varied at different levels) the officer claimed that the scan showed a huge fraction of the tree’s cross section had succumbed to complete decay. [I've kicked the tree and on the basis of it feeling rock solid can't believe that. ]

Cllr Blair said that there were many aspects of the tree officers’ work such as : “girdling, bracing and supporting trees” that went largely unseen and that felling was not the first resort.

Cllr Dryden sought an assurance that all the trees to be felled would be replaced, Cllr Reid also jumped in on that point asking about replacements. They were told that was a matter for the West/Central Area committee.

The Liberal Democrat members of the committee along with Cllrs Dryden and Hipkin voted to advise Cllr Julie Smith to have the trees felled. Cllr Blencowe wasn’t convinced by the officers’ report and voted against.

I wonder what might have happened if the trees were considered individually, I don’t think the Lime Tree would have been given a reprieve by the Liberal Democrats but the vote might have been closer than 8:1, and an individual consideration of the London Plane might have resulted in a decision to prune and see what happens rather than fell.

Direct Action?

A number of people have asked me since the meeting if I’m going to go and chain myself to the trees and try and continue to campaign to keep them through direct action.

I am not.

I am happy the decision has been made democratically and it can be justified. In that sense the right thing has been done.

Follow-up

There have already been fairly firm assurances given at the West/Central area committee that the council will pay for replacement trees. It is possible to buy quite substantial trees, I will be campaigning for the replacements not to be “pathetic little sticks” as one commenter has described some recent council planting but something along the lines of “Instant Trees”, 5-7m tall supplied in 150L containers which can be obtained locally. Perhaps the council could fund the cost of their typical sapling but agree to put in a larger tree if others donated the difference?.

The loss of another Horse Chestnut highlights the need for a firm plan for the replacement of the tree avenue either side of Victoria Avenue. This needs to be taken from the current ideas stage into a formal agreed plan, and action on the first steps needs to be taken. My views, (which need to be developed) include:

  • A five year management plan for the avenue is no good, we want a thirty year plan at the end of which the avenue will be established and the residents of the city can not worry about it for over a hundred years if replaced by Horse Chestnut or several centuries if planted in Oak.
  • There are two distinct options, one is to plant behind the existing trees creating a wider avenue, and the other is to plant within the current line of the avenue. There are pros and cons to each approach. The wider avenue would result in a less dramatic effect as the canopies would not almost meet in the middle of the road as some do now. However a new wider avenue could be planted now and felling of the existing avenue could be put off until the existing trees really needed to be removed and the new avenue is established. Planting in the current line would require a decision to be made to fell existing trees when the replacements were quite young to allow them to establish themselves. I am in favor of planting in the current line so as to retain the dramatic effect we have now.
  • The existing trees could be removed in a staggered fashion. Maybe 1/4 at a time on an intercalated basis, not starting until the new trees have been in for at least a decade or so (and they could be a that old at the point they are put in)
  • Expertise from within the Cambridge colleges on managing tree avenues could perhaps be tapped?
  • Felling ought not be contemplated before the plan is in place and well underway (and perhaps funded in advance?)
  • I’m a big fan of planting an Oak tree avenue that will last centuries on one of the potential sites. What species are best suited to the sites though?

While I opposed cutting the wide expanse of space on Jesus Green in two for a new proposed avenue there, if the trees either side of the path between Park Street and the existing Plane tree avenue were to be removed as part of the lottery funded works a new substantial avenue, which would not impinge on open space, could be planted along that line.

21 comments/updates on “A Democratic Decision to Fell Trees on Midsummer Common

  1. Brian Johnson

    “If the tree fails causing damage to persons or
    property the Council will have no defence as it has identified the tree as high risk in a high risk location.”

    Conversely, they are saying that if they hadn’t identified it as high risk, they *would* have a defence.

    In other words, it all comes down to the £12K machine which they *have* to find a use for. (“This machine for finding rot inside trees… so, how many trees have we found like that? None!! Who authorised its purchase?”)

    I think that unretouched (no ‘alarming dotted white lines’ added please) photos of the rot in the trunks must be posted on the Council website.

  2. Aymie Thompson

    It seems to me that this is a classical case of an opinionated member of the public believing he is always in the right. I am sure he employs professional people in his own small company and respects their opinion and judgement.
    I am sure as a well respected business man he is willing to put his money where his mouth is and indemnify the council all the relevant insurance liabilities, since kicking seems to be a valid method of testing to this gentleman.
    I suggest that you at least have the sense to find out how effective the machine is, before criticising it. I understand that this is the best that money can buy. The council is unable to ‘waste’ money as they do, contrary to common belief, have to give account of their spending, so they cannot spend it on ‘pointless’ peices of equipment.

  3. Richard Article author

    The above comment has been posted from IP address “83.105.93.235” which resolves to: oviatt-ham.demon.co.uk

    Diana Oviatt-Hamm is the City Council’s Principal Tree Officer. An electoral roll search indicates a Diana E Oviatt-Hamm lives with a Malcolm Oviatt-Hamm. A Malcolm Oviatt-Hamm runs a website selling plants at http://www.oviatt-ham.demon.co.uk/

    I have not described the £12K tree ultrasound device as pointless, however the evidence presented from it did not convince me (or Cllr Blencowe). As I have said I do not know where on the tree the ultrasound cross section was taken.

    I hope the council plans to (as I hope to) inspect the tree when it is felled to see if it really is almost half rotten as the scan indicated; that is how I plan to determine the effectiveness of the machine for myself. I had no opportunity to ask questions about the effectiveness of the machine before the planning meeting as the scan was only tabled at the meeting – seconds before I spoke. It was not introduced and explained at all until Cllr Blencowe asked what it showed.

    Had the machine not been used to condemn the tree I don’t think the council would have any problem claiming it had no reason to think the tree was in any danger of falling should it have caused any damage. Trees and bits of trees fall down occasionally even with the council’s team of tree officers constantly inspecting them.

    I wonder if the decision to spend 12K on the tree scanning machine went before an elected councillor or a committee? I believe I am the first person to publicise its existence or its cost and enable people to hold councillors to account for its purchase.

    I am prepared to do all I can to prevent the spread of an American style compensation culture in this country.

  4. Aymie Thompson

    I request that you IMEDIATELY take down the IP address. Publishing IP adressess is a GROSS MISCONDUCT and invasion of privacy.

  5. Richard Article author

    “Aymie”, it is clearly in the public interest to highlight there appears to be a link between the author of the above comments and the City Council’s principleal tree officer.

  6. Aymie Thompson

    I was not saying there is not a link between the author of the comment and the Tree Officers address, I was aking that the IP be taken out of the public domain, or you will be liable for any consequences.

  7. Richard Article author

    Aymie, perhaps if you explain who you are and what your connection is to the City Council’s principle tree officer that might negate the necessity to publish the IP address from which you are posting.

    I note many major websites routinely publish the IP addresses of their contributors, by being active on the internet you are making your IP address known to all who you communicate with.

    [I need a policy on moderation and anonymity - it's on the to-do list - comments welcome]

  8. Aymie Thompson

    All you need to know is that I wish that my IP address taken out of the public domain. I understand that may website hosts can see the IP address of the people using it, but they do not publish it. I wish it to be taken down.

    A note for you ‘followers’ I am not the Tree Officer in question. I just wished to raise a few points without being persicuted.

  9. paul canning

    Richard

    I think there’s a bigger issue here which is what EXACTLY officers sign up to when they become officers.

    i.e. are they no longer citizens with rights to say whatever the f*&k they like.

    Exactly what rights do they sign away – like civil servants – or are they actually terribly vague, these ‘conditions’.

    It doesn’t really matter if they are or are not commenting on an area they have a working interest in, the issue is what liberties are they signing away? What EXACTLY are they allowed to comment on publicly?

    I can see where you are coming from prodding away at this but look at this from the other *citizen’s* perspective.

    A better avenue, I would venture, is to ask why *they* are not responding to you as they might the CEN.

  10. Richard Article author

    Paul,
    I think it is right that council officers and civil servants ought to remain impartial.

    Seven or eight years ago I applied for public sector roles myself which would have restricted my ability to participate in public debate so I have an awareness from that perspective.

    Councillors and candidates from the City and County have responded to what has been written on this site, via comments, emails and references while speaking. It is treated similarly to other forums of discussion.

    Are you sure someone connected to a council officer would not write a letter to the Cambridge News commenting on the officer’s area of work? That format might make it harder to identify and highlight a potential conflict of interest, though if one was identified – in the analogous situation of a postal address (or an unusual surname) of a correspondent matching that of a senior officer I would expect investigations to be carried out and if appriopriate an explanatory note printed.

  11. paul canning

    What I would say here is what EXACTLY do council officers sign up to. They are decidedly not civil servants so what EXACTLY is the ‘code’.

    After all, when you live here what rights to behaving like other citizens are you signing away when you join the council. Is it clear? What does ‘impartial’ actually mean?

    I think you will find that it is not at all clear.

  12. Robbie Bow

    Did the council or its officers give any figures for the risk involved? What is the likelihood of a branch snapping off in the next year? 1 in 5? 1 in 100? 1 in 1million? In other words, what risk assessment was taken?

  13. Richard Article author

    There was no quantification of the risk.

    I complained that there was no mention of the urgency of the work. If this point had been addressed it might have been answered in terms of probability.

    The tone of what happened was that councillors were told the risk was non-zero and therefore decided to call in the chainsaws. Phrases such as “high risk” and “unacceptable risk” and “increasing risk as time goes on” were used by tree officers.

  14. paul canning

    John

    civil servants work for Whitehall, that’s another branch of government entirely, which has a well-known code. Local government workers don’t have such a code and the rules are opaque at best.

  15. Anne Garvey

    Richard you are so right to try and make the Council more accountable as Councillors for tree felling. But I don’t think you can ignore that there is a weird trend towards chopping down trees for odd reasons. On the Jesus Green visit from the Landscape Architect whose vision is a single line of plane trees and no more, we heard that all other trees would be best off felled. That included the now flowering cherry trees planted only a decade ago. Being slaves to fashion apparently touches on trees as well as hemlines.
    BY the way I do think that everyone involved or related to officers or Councillors should declare their association and that Aymie has nothing to complain about We all need to know where contributors and commentators are coming from on a personal and interested basis.

  16. Richard Article author

    Anne,

    I’ve not ignored the odd reasons given for chopping down trees. I’ve been repeatedly drawing attention to them, and have been challenging councillors when they claim they only fell diseased and dangerous trees.

    I’ve written on this website about plans to fell trees for not being in straight lines on Jesus Green, the felling of trees on Parkers’ Piece to enable “more consistent planting” on one side, the felling of trees because they’re non-native at Brooklands Avenue and at Byron’s Pool as well as the misguided “diversity” arguments used to justify felling trees which shade watercourses at those latter two sites.

    I asked about the council’s reported advice to EDF fell the Jesus Green Cherry trees both at the West Central Area committee and in my objection letter to the planning application.

    I also made all these points when I spoke at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee in March 2009.

    While councillors often say they’re felling trees because they’re diseased and dangerous many trees are being lost because of these other reasons. When I challenged Cllr Julie Smith for describing the trees to be felled on Jesus Green as “old and frail, poorly formed or diseased” she retracted this and claimed she had been misled by her officers.

  17. Richard Article author

    An independent assessment of one of the trees to be felled is available as it has been considered in the Arboricultural Impact Assessment prepared by tree:fabrik as part of the Brunswick Riverside planning application. They clearly weren’t taking proper account of the Council’s chainsaw happy nature when they estimated the tree would survive, contributing to the area for 10-20 years more. They recommended a 2m crown reduction and the removal of dead wood – a far more conservative approach than the felling proposed by the city council.

    This is the White Willow which is on highways ground next to the Elizabeth Way bridge but is still managed by the City Council.

  18. Richard Article author

    A source has suggested to me that using Cambridge City Council’s tree ultrasound device involves hammering in a ring of large “nails” around the tree at each point at which a horizontal scan is to be conducted. It is apparantly not as non-invasive as I had assumed having listened to presentations.

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